Headlines: January 11th, 2006

Government measures to combat poor performance in schools in England are having an effect, according to a report today from the National Audit Office. But it says more can still be done to speed up the improvement of poor schools and to help sustain that improvement. It points, too, to concerns over a shortage of head teachers and the need for local authorities to have close links with all their schools.The report says a large proportion of schools provide high standards of education and that pupil attainment is improving in primary and secondary schools. Some, though, perform less well under definitions used by the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted. The 1,557 schools under those definitions include 242 schools that Ofsted has judged to be failing to provide an acceptable standard of education.

The NAO says a range of national initiatives and local action are helping to reduce that number but the report says more needs to be done to prevent poor performance in the first place, to speed up the improvement of poorly performing schools, and to support improved schools in sustaining their achievements. It believes that more frequent inspections, introduced by Ofsted in September, may help to spot signs of trouble earlier.

The report says the Government spent around 840 million pounds in England last year to help prevent poor performance and to turn around schools, excluding the costs of academies. These initiatives, it says, are having an effect and fewer primaries and secondary schools are failing to achieve targets for minimum pupil achievement, and the number of schools in Ofsted categories is falling. There is some regional variation with, for example, 1.5 per cent of schools in Outer London are in the Ofsted Special Measures category compared with only 0.4 per cent in the North East of England.

The NAO says about 85 per cent of schools recover after being put into Special Measures as a result of good support from Ofsted and their local authority. The remaining 15 per cent close. Two-thirds of schools in Special Measures make at least reasonable progress in the first year, and most recover within two years but a minority of schools take four years or more to recover. The longer a school takes to turn round the more damage to its reputation and so the more difficult recovery becomes.

Under the DfES Fresh Start renewal programme, schools re-open with refurbished facilities and changes to governors and staff and they show steady and continuing improvement in GCSE results. This costs an average of 2.2 million pounds. There are early encouraging signs from the Academies Programme, which has capital costs of around 27 million pounds for a 1,300 pupil academy but, the NAO says, it is too early to know whether it will be good value for money.

Responsibility for improving school performance, the report says, is shared between the schools, local authorities, Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills and it says local authorities should maintain close links with all of their schools, and provide extra support for those schools that are vulnerable. An NAO survey of recovered schools showed that many head teachers felt that their school received much better local authority support after being put into an Ofsted category than during the school’s decline.

Support and challenge from governing bodies, as well as strong leadership from heads, were essential elements of school recovery and of maintaining high achievement into the future. But the report raises concerns about shortages of head teachers and says that in 2004-05, 28 per cent of primary schools and 20 per cent of secondary schools were without a permanent head.